U.S. Rep. Chris Smith’s comment about LGBT rights not being human rights has drawn the wrath of not just activists but also a fellow member of the New Jersey congressional delegation.
“I am a strong believer in traditional marriage and do not construe homosexual rights as human rights,” Smith, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, said at a hearing last week. “Others have a different view and I certainly respect them.”
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. responded strongly with a statement issued Tuesday, reports NJ.com, a website for several New Jersey newspapers. “Congressman Smith is welcome to have his own opinions, but when he makes such an inflammatory statement in an effort to push the administration into ignoring the rights of LGBT people as a matter of policy, it crosses the line,” Pallone said. “Representatives in Congress must be promoting the expansion of human rights, not fighting to limit its definition to people that they deem to be appropriate.”
He added, “What is so troubling and inexplicable about Congressman Smith’s comments is that he makes a distinction between the rights of LGBT individuals and the rights of humans. The day that we begin plucking certain categories of people out from under the protections of universal human rights because of who they are is the day we abandon our commitment to building a more just world.”
Smith in turn accused Pallone of distorting his words. “It is a little shocking how they’re twisting my words and profoundly inaccurate,” he told NJ.com. He also said he was not condoning violence against anyone.
Smith made the original comment when questioning State Department official Robert T. Jackson on whether the Obama administration's support for LGBT rights led it to hold back on assisting Nigeria in its fight against terrorist group Boko Haram. “There has been no impact,” Jackson responded.
LGBT Nigerians face a variety of threats, however, not just from Boko Haram but from their own government. Last year Nigeria enacted a law providing for prison terms for people who have same-sex union ceremonies or in any way publicly declare such relationships; it also prohibits gatherings of LGBT people. Nigerian officials have reportedly tortured citizens in order to get them to identify those who are LGBT. The law has been condemned by Secretary of State John Kerry, among others. And the day Smith made his original comment, January 27, 12 young men were arrested in Nigeria on suspicion that they were planning same-sex weddings, but 10 were subsequently released.
Smith has gone on to muddy his position on international LGBT rights. Thursday, during a hearing on human rights in Cuba, he indicated that he wished to "clarify" his statements, and added that he opposes marriage equality but supports the enforcement of human rights standards for LGBT people.
Although in 2009, Smith signed a congressional letter denouncing an early version of Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Act, he otherwise has quite an antigay record. Also in 2009, Smith voted against LGBT-inclusive hate-crimes legislation. In 2007 he voted against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. In 2004 and again in 2008, he voted in favor of a federal constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage. He has also voted to prohibit gay and lesbian parents from adopting.
Additional reporting by Matt Baume